Thursday, February 7, 2013

The most important "choice" - the neighborhood school

This week two school boards are wrestling with decisions about school closures - Kootenay Columbia, and Port Alberni. In Kootenay Columbia, the decision was made that the Board would no longer support a full K-12 program in the town of Rossland. In Alberni, the Board is considering a school closure and relocation of students to other schools.

Both communities saw an outpouring of public interest and concern. In Rossland, a community group called Vision for Small Schools has been advocating to maintain K-12 services within Rossland.  A survey of parents found that 85 percent wanted to maintain K-12 in Rossland even if that meant having a single K-12 school. The vast majority of parents who responded to the survey were Rossland residents - 487 of 500.

The last decade has seen hundreds of school closures across British Columbia. Always, parents and community members are distraught to lose their neighborhood school. Not only are children displaced out of their community, but the school often serves other functions for local residents. They have playgrounds used in the evenings, rooms booked for community functions, theatres and sports facilities rented to community groups.

Although there has been declining enrollment, as the Rossland group points out, many of these communities will see a rebound in the coming decade. In Rossland, the District has projected enrollment back at 2003 levels by 2026. To close schools now, at the bottom of the enrollment dip, is rather shortsighted. If funding were provided by the province, community schools, with all their benefits to local residents, could be maintained to ensure adequate space for this enrollment rebound.

The irony of school closures is that parents and community members have consistently shown through their actions that this is one of the most important school "choices". It is very important to parents to be able to send their child to a school within the local community, and it is important to communities to have school spaces and facilities to act as neighborhood hubs.

The "choice" movement advocated by the BC Liberals for the past decade has eroded access to community schools and led directly to these hundreds of school closures. Opening of catchments and allowing children (or their parents) to "choose" a school has skewed the enrollments in many Districts. In Vancouver, students have fled east end schools only to fill west end schools with portables. Turf wars have broken out, particularly at the secondary level, to recruit students to "our" school. Schools, districts and teachers are spending scarce resources advertising their schools, hosting open house nights, putting up signs and creating ever more specialized academies and programs in an attempt to have the highest enrollment. Sadly, this only takes children from one school to another, and will end up as a race to nowhere. As the inter-school competition increases, schools are looking even further afield for more children to attract. A recent Board meeting in Victoria claimed the Lacrosse Academy would attract students from "the lower island". A new school proposal for Saanich specializing in earth and ocean science will aim to attract students from all over British Colombia.

But for every school that gets a new student, some other school loses one. And when enough are gone, the effects can be ghetto-izing or closure. The trend is for students (or parents) with enough social capital to be the ones actively picking their schools. When this happens, schools in lower income neighborhoods experience a "flight" of middle class kids. The net effect is a ghetto-ization of schools into "haves" and "have nots". This "choice" is great for the haves...they get a school of their choice, a program of their choice. But it is a disaster for the "have nots" and it is unfair and inequitable. For a particular child, choice may seem attractive, but for society as a whole, choice leads to stratification and inequity.

Families and communities have shown again and again that the neighborhood school is of paramount importance. Chronic underfunding and inter-school competition have led to overcrowded schools combined with under-utilized schools. The end result is school closures of neighborhood schools and a loss of the most important choice for parents - the choice of the neighborhood school.

1 comment:

  1. A wise former teacher at my school would always answer the question from a parent- "What is the best school for my child?" with the response- "Your neighbourhood school." That was many years ago and it is even more true nowadays. The neo-liberal idea of schools competing with one another and the survival of the fittest is not conducive to the goal of public education to create a literate, democratic, equalitarian liberal society.